17 February 2020

A Stranger Comes to Town; an Author Vanishes

Forever 33
Jacques Byfield
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1982
175 pages

The Alberta town of Breery exists nowhere outside Forever 33, but should be familiar to readers of Canadian fiction. Its five hundred inhabitants – those featured in the novel, anyway – will be equally familiar; there's the voluptuous waitress (she's up for anything), the tempted hardware store owner (his wife wants to start a family), the brooding farmer (he beats his kids), the widowed schoolteacher (with a heart of gold), and the troubled preacher (who is questioning his faith).

As might be expected from its Alberta setting, the novel takes place during the Great Depression.

The unfamiliar comes in the form of a one-legged gravedigger named John Evans. I'm betting that the novel's first sentence – "No one knew where he had come from, and no one went out of his way to find out." – inspired the copy on the back of the dust jacket:

The front flap looks to build upon the aura of mystery: "He was a stranger who seemed to know things people didn't know about themselves." The words "haunting" and "mesmerizing" feature, followed by this: "none is left untouched by the watchful presence of the gravedigger."

Memories of Evans, like this one, fill the earliest pages:
Pastor Clough remarked more than once that his gravedigger showed little concern for the rituals of pre-burial; he even went so far as to doubt the man's confederacy with Christianity. John Evans was never seen inside the church. He remained for the most part a man unnoticed, passing his days digging deep holes and then refilling them upon the heads the town's deceased. Occasionally he would disappear; on those occasions he would be employed at other towns in the vicinity digging for their burials. No one had to tell him where or when his particular services were required. He just knew. The man had a nose for death. He could sniff its adolescent scent on the breeze and be gone in its direction before the bereaved could gather.
All hints at the supernatural, bringing to mind Ray Bradbury's G.M. Dark (Something Wicked This Way Comes) and Stephen King's Leland Gaunt (Needful Things), mysterious outsiders who wreak havoc on small town America. I expected gravedigger Evans to be their Canadian cousin.

I was wrong.

Evans is a mysterious figure only in that the author doesn't share as much about him as he does Breery's townsfolk. His powers rest on observation, and are no more remarkable than those of local gossip Vera Roden:
The woman had an uncanny knack. If she caught only so much as one word of private conversation, then the cat was out of the bag.
As the novel progressed, I became less interested those living in Breery than I did the town as a whole. How did was it, I wondered, that a town of five hundred could support a hardware store and diner? How was it that everyone lived in comfort, despite the Great Depression? More than anything, I wondered how Breery was able to afford a full-time gravedigger.

Then there was Byfield's style, which swings wildly. Compare the passages quoted above with this, in which young Peter Carlson, son of the brutal farmer, chases after Evans:
The boy's breath billowed with the exertion of his haste. It was in his heart to consummate their earliest vague discussion. Since that first talk he'd been savouring with anticipation what he hoped the digger might tell him next. He hurried and was quickly upon the object of his haste.
Forever 33 was declared a finalist in the $50,000 Seal Books First Novel Award.

No winner was awarded.

How is that fair?

For all its flaws, Forever 33 is a better debut novel than Mordecai Richler's The Acrobats, Daniel Richler's Kicking Tomorrow, and Emma Richler's Feed My Dear Dogs. I admired Byfield's imagination and looked forward to a more mature sophomoric work... only to discover that his bibliography begins and ends with Forever 33.

The publicity sheet inserted in my copy informs that he author is at work on a new novel.

It's been thirty-eight years.

About the title: In reminiscing, the gravedigger recites lines from a song he remembers from the Great War: "The soldier knows that he will die and buried deep he'll be. The digger may live to be ninety-nine, but he'll stay thirty-three."

I've found no evidence that these lines exist outside the pages of this novel.

Fun fact: According to the Canadian Cataloguing in Publication Data, Jacques Byfield was born in 1948, which would have made him either 33 or 34 at time of publication.

Object and Access: A slim volume bound in brown boards. The jacket design is credited to Fernley Hesse Ltd. My copy is a first edition. I see no sign of another.

I can find all of two copies available for sale online, neither of which is offered by a Canadian bookseller. How is that possible?

The cheaper of the two is priced at £15. I can't say it's worth the price. I can't say it isn't.

Held by Library and Archives Canada, the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, and twelve of our academic libraries. Of our public libraries, only that serving Toronto comes through. Not only that, it offers this photograph of the young author on its website.

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14 February 2020

Nothing Says Romance Like a Harlequin Romance

The Vengeful Heart
Roberta Leigh [pseud Rita Lewin]
Toronto: Harlequin, 1970
From the back cover:
His love would be her weapon. 
"You were lucky to marry me, weren't you?" Julia mocked. "But you'll never possess me, Nigel!" 
The knowledge should have filled her with a sense of power. Power over a man she hated! Nigel Farnham's ruthless prosecution of her father had sent him to prison, where he died alone. 
Julia had vowed to make Nigel pay; to destroy the lawyer's life the way he had destroyed her parents. And now she had to carry out her plan for revenge – no matter what the cost...
Happy Valentine's Day!

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10 February 2020

Erin O'Toole's Proud Disgrace

Yo! Conservative guys and Conservative gals,
You wanna lead this party, you gotta be like our pals,
You gotta talk into the mike,
You gotta tell us what you're like.
– MP Arnold Viersen, "Conservative Rap" (2017)*
Jeff Ballingall's is not a household name, not even in households that follow his Ontario Proud, Canada Proud, and BC Proud Facebook pages.

My only interaction with the man came in June 2018. A few days after the Ontario general election, I asked how it was that Ontario Proud, a page dedicated to the defeat of Kathleen Wynne, a page that had raised funds with the expressed purpose of defeating Kathleen Wynne, had then spent that money on attack ads targeting Andrea Horwath.

There was no answer. My query was deleted. I was blocked from posting.

More recently, in response to a Canada Proud post that criticized the treatment of women and gays in Iran, I asked why Proud Facebook pages allowed misogynistic and homophobic comments.

There was no answer. My query was deleted. I was blocked from posting.

Thus far, questions addressed to BC Proud have gone unanswered.

A former Sun News and Conservative Research Group employee, Jeff Ballingall is a man of many hats. In 2016, he founded Mobilize Media Group, an organization not terribly keen on letting you know what they're all about. Ballingall co-owns and is Chief Marketing Officer of The Post Millennial, home to faux-journalists who rewrite news stories from legitimate sources so as to inflame right-wing snowflakes.

This past October, following the Conservative's electoral loss, Ballingall joined fellow Sun News evacuee Kory Teneycke in founding Conservative Victory, a group dedicated to ousting Andrew Scheer as leader. In November, Ballingall was afforded a full hour on the CBC – what his Proud followers refer to as the "Communist Broadcasting Corporation " – to speak out against Scheer. In December, Scheer stepped down. In January, it was announced that Ballingall had joined leadership candidate Erin O'Toole's team. According to the National Post, he has been tasked to "oversee digital strategy."

The effect of this new position on the Ontario Proud, Canada Proud, and BC Proud has been immediate. And I do mean immediate.

New posts on Erin O'Toole's Facebook page are shared within minutes on Proud pages, complete with links encouraging donations to the candidate's leadership campaign. Not one Proud page has shared a post from fellow front runner Peter MacKay, never mind any other leadership contender. This is not to say that there haven't been posts featuring MacKay.

Further examples will be provided upon request.

With Ballingall onboard, O'Toole's posts have taken on the look and character – half-truths, disinformation, disingenuous editing – of his Proud pages. That the comments they prompt are similar and in some cases identical to those left on those pages is explained by the aforementioned sharing and the use of Mobilize Media Group's database in micro-targetting Facebook ads.

The result is a cesspool made up of lunacy and conspiracy. The prime minister is referred to as both a communist and a Nazi,

ignorance of the human reproductive system and basic English is on display,

Islamophobia runs rampant,

and, as is habit within the Conservative Party of Canada, Justin Trudeau's murder is encouraged.

And on it goes.

Not four Four months ago, in a Toronto Life interview, Ballingall sniffed: "They stereotype us – they think we’re all bigoted, racist rednecks. We’re not."

Who is "they," I wonder.

Never mind.

I don't believe Proud followers are all bigoted racists, just as I don't believe Erin O'Toole's followers are all bigoted, racist rednecks, though I do recognize that bigoted, racist rednecks exist within their number.

Does Ballingall?

More importantly, does O'Toole?

Why, after all these years, does Ballingall allow these comments? How is it that Erin O'Toole has hired a man who allows these these comments? More to the point, how is it that Erin O'Toole allows these comments?

Last week, on his Facebook page, I accused Erin O'Toole of scaremongering. I went on to suggest that he was soiling his campaign and his reputation.

Erin O'Toole hasn't blocked me. It may be that he's leaving that decision to Jeff Ballingall.

* MP Arnold Viersen's "Conservative Rap", played at the 2017 Conservative leadership convention. Enjoy!


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08 February 2020

The Poetry of Arnold Viersen

Earlier this week, during a House of Commons debate, Conservative Member of Parliament Arnold Viersen (Peace River–Westlock) asked fellow MP Laurel Collins (Victoria) whether she'd ever considered sex work. It was his most newsworthy act to date, though longtime Viersen watchers like myself hold aloft this untitled poem, which he recited in the House on May 6, 2016 (as recorded in Hansard):

    Springtime is here; our farmers are in their fields
    Assessing the moisture, gauging their yields.
    When rain is sparse and times are tough
    And the price of hay is especially rough,
    As Conservatives we understand
    It takes hard work to till the land.
    Alberta NDP passed a law for working on prairie farms:
    More expensive food – don't care who it harms.
    They said, “John dear, we want your food
    But only feed your cows when we're in the mood;
    No overtime or you'll pay the price”.
    Beef and pork will cost more than twice
    We're standing up for farmers, feeding cows 'till nine.
    We're standing up for farmers, working overtime.
    You eat their beef, you sit on leather,
    Your feet are shoed in stormy weather.
    Without their food, life would be grim
    Unless you plan to be awfully thin
    Family farms are getting fewer.
    Once they're gone, we're in deep manure.
    Don't egg me on, the yolk's on you.
    If farmers leave, what will we do?
    Bottom line – You want to eat?
    Support our farmers – Buy their wheat.

In his 1977 essay "The Poet as Performer Debases His Art," John Glassco puts it that few are able to do justice to verse in public recitation. But then, he didn't live on enough to witness something such as this:

Elected to the House of Commons in 2015, Mr Viersen is a graduate of Alberta's Canadian Covenant School in Neerlandia, situated at the intersection of Highway 769 and Township Road 615A between Mellowdale and Vega.

I'm saving Arnold Viersen's masterpiece, "Conservative Rap," for a future post.

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29 January 2020

Published in the Age of Unravelling

Can it be? Not four weeks into the New Year and already a new Canadian Notes & Queries? A theme issue – "Writing in the Age of Unravelling" – it makes for some uncomfortable reading. Catherine Bush contributes an essay on representations of the climate crisis in fiction. Jacky Sawatzky writes on her memorial to the endangered giraffe. Jennifer Ilse Black and Waubgeshig Rice are interviewed. Andrew Forbes presents a cli-fi primer.

Credit goes to Guest Editors Patricia Robertson and Sharon English.

The issue's Dusty Bookcase concerns Hotter Than Hell, the 1974 Kiss album produced by Kenny Kenner and Richie Wise.

I jest. It's about the 2005 dystopian novel of the same title.

Political animals will remember Hotter Than Hell as the small press book the newly-elected Harper Conservatives made famous by silencing its author, government scientist Mark Tushington.

What intrigued me is that for all the coverage – The Globe & MailThe New York Times, The Scientist, et al – no one appeared to have taken the time to read the damn thing.

Well, I've read it. And now you don't have to.

Here's a typical passage:
The Eighteenth Guard (Pennsylvania) and Eighth Guard (New York) divisions, supported by the 1st Marine and 57th Urban brigades were attacking, The First Guard Division was being badly defeated in every sector. The 28th and 29th regiments were quickly pushed out of Abany and up the length of the Mohawk Valley. It was only then that we retreated into Utica that my forces could hold. Because of the inactivity of the IV Corps, I took a supreme gamble and withdrew elements of the 6th Armored Brigade from covering Montreal.
You're welcome.

Other contributors include:
Madhur Anand
Peter Anson
Nicholas Bradley
Yuan Changming
Stephen Fowler
Lise Gaston
Roger Greenwald
Mahak Jain
Joanna Lilley
JF Martel
David Mason
Catherine Owen
Roz Spafford
Erika Thorkelson
RM Vaughan
Mary Lou Zeitown
The issue also features the annual Book Review supplement.

Thirty-two pages of goodness, provided by:
Michel Basilières
Steven W. Beattie
Jeff Bursey
Andreae Callahan
Laura Cameron
Paige Cooper
Trevor Corkum
André Forget
Monique Giroux
James Granger
Brett Josef Grubisic
Katia Grubisic
Stephen Henighan
Dancy Mason
Rohan Maitzen
Rod Moody-Corbet
Rudrapriya Rathore
Patricia Robertson
Matthew D. Rodrigues
Mark Sampson
Jonathan Valelly
Derek Webster
Bruce Whiteman
Apparently, there's a sequel to Hotter Than Hell.

I'll leave it to others to explore.

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20 January 2020

An R.T.M. Scott Cover Cavalcade

It seems appropriate that a man taken with mysticism and the supernatural would end up as a phantom. Reginald Thomas Maitland Scott – R.T.M. Scott – isn't to be found in The Canadian Encyclopedia, The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature, or W.H. New's Encyclopedia of Canadian Literature. Forget about Alberto Manguel's Canadian Mystery Stories. I first saw Scott's name as a kid on a couple of paperback reprints. I had no idea that Scott was Canadian. I didn't know that he'd received a Royal Military College education. I didn't know that he'd served in the First World War. I still don't know what brought him to writing.

Scott published his first story, "Such Bluff as Dreams Are Made Of," in the 3 April 1920 issue of Adventure. Look carefully and you'll see him listed last on the issue's cover.

Scott was thirty-seven when that first story was published. He wrote for a further twenty-six years, only to fall silent during his final two decades.

The cover of Scott's first book, Secret Service Smith, looks like something from another time. What I mean to say is that it looks like something that is not of its time – more Edwardian than Roaring Twenties.

Secret Service Smith (New York: Dutton, 1923)
The first of eight Secret Service Smith books, the cover is nothing like The Black Magician, its follow-up:

The Black Magician (New York: Dutton, 1925)
I think the first editions of Ann's Crime and Aurelius Smith – Detective, the third and fourth Secret Service Smith books are the two best covers to grace an R.T.M. Scott novel:

Ann's Crime (New York: Dutton, 1926)
Aurelius Smith – Detective (New York: Dutton, 1927)
Though I do like this later treatment of the former:

Ann's Crime (New York: Dutton: 1938)
That Ann. What a badass. Quite different from this Jazz Age honey:

Complete Detective Novel Magazine (November 1928)
The Secret Service Smith adventures are pretty good – writes a man who has read only one – but Scott is much better known as the author of the first two Spider novels:

The Spider (October 1933)
The Spider (November 1933)
Pure pulp, they came and went in the autumn of 1933 – and weren't available in book form until 1969, three years after Scott's death. These were the covers on which I first read Scott's name:

The Spider Strikes! (New York: Berkley, 1969)
The Wheel of Death (New York: Berkley, 1969)
I remember seeing these several years after publication – most likely in our local used bookstore – but turned up my nose. The Spider seemed to owe too much to the Shadow, which had become something of an obsession. Had I known they were written by a fellow Canadian I might've given them a chance.

The Agony Column Murders (New York: Dutton, 1946)
Scott's two final novels, The Agony Column Murders and The Nameless Ones, were published during a time of grief. His son and namesake had followed him into service in a World War – and, like his father, he'd survived. Unlike his father, he was killed in an accident before returning home.

The former editor of Mystical Science Magazine, Reginald Thomas Maitland Scott, fis, shared his father's beliefs concerning the unseen world. I see now that I've done both a disservice with my earlier reference to Scott's interest in the supernatural – "supernormal" is the word Reginald Thomas Maitland Scott, pere, would've used.

The Nameless Ones (New York: Dutton, 1947)
We've done both R.T.M. Scotts a disservice in not recognizing their writings.

Neither deserves to be a phantom.

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